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How to hear from God

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 2:19-23

A friend recently sent me some questions I couldn’t answer: Why do we wash bath towels? Aren’t we clean when we use them? If not, what was the purpose of the bath? What is the point of brick wallpaper? Is there ever a day when mattresses are not on sale? Is it true that the only difference between a yard sale and a trash pickup is how close to the road the stuff is placed?

Other questions are more practical. Business Week began the new year with articles abounding in investment advice for 2005. It identifies such economic “wild cards” as fluctuating oil prices, inflation, the housing market, global growth, and of course terrorism. But the magazine doesn’t tell us what will happen, because it doesn’t know.

Closer to home, where do you most need advice for the year ahead? What decision is weighing on your mind and soul today? Where would you most like to hear from God? He guided Joseph in the clearest terms–will he guide us as well? Will he speak to us as fully as he spoke to Abraham, Moses, and Paul? If so, how can we hear from him this morning and this year?

Understand your place in God’s purpose

Before we get specific and practical, we need to remember some general facts about the will of God. The first is that God has a universal purpose for us all, to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). God will measure our success this year by how many people we helped follow Jesus. Our jobs, possessions, school experiences, and relationships are a means to this end. This is his purpose for every one of us.

Second, God has a unique purpose for your life: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29). Jesus has a “yoke” for you, a will for your life as you help people follow Jesus.

Third, it is critical that we know and live out this unique purpose each day of our lives.

Annie Dillard is right: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

Your 85 or so years on this planet are just a dot compared to the line of eternity. Consider life as a fraction. Put the 85 years of your lifespan in the top, the numerator. Now put eternity in the bottom, the denominator. 85 over infinity is the very small fraction of your existence which you will spend in this world. It only makes sense that you should live your brief life in the numerator, for the sake of the denominator.

Fourth, God has given us three keys to unlocking his unique purpose for our daily lives: the pragmatic, the intuitive, and the rational. I know those terms are not familiar to most of us, and strange language for a sermon. But stay with me–they are the most important and practical advice I have ever encountered for knowing and doing the will of God. I want to show you how they worked in Joseph’s life, and how they work in ours.

Look for God’s open doors

God’s will has led Joseph to marry the pregnant Mary, to adopt her son as his own, and then to flee his homeland with his family for Egypt. Now, after Herod died, an angel of the Lord led Joseph to return from Egypt to Israel, “for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead” (v. 20). But when Joseph returned and found that “Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there” (v. 22). And so he and the family ended up in Nazareth, a village which became Jesus’ hometown.

There are pragmatic, practical factors all through this story. Herod was a vile ruler who slaughtered anyone he considered a threat to his throne, a kind of Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler. If someone tells Herod that your adopted son is the King of the Jews, it makes good practical sense to take your child out of his jurisdiction until he dies.

Archelaus wasn’t much of an improvement. Immediately upon assuming power, he put down unrest in Jerusalem by slaughtering 3,000 Jews at the Temple during the Passover. He ruled only ten years before Emperor Augustus removed him for incompetence. Like his father, he might consider Jesus a threat to his power. If you’re a Christian exiled from Cuba by Castro, and you learn that he has died but his brother Raul rules in his place, you’re not sure whether you should return or not. Joseph was being pragmatic and wise.

So he took his family to Nazareth, the town he and Mary had left before Jesus’ birth. Why there? For several practical reasons. Sepphoris was nearby, a cosmopolitan city with excellent educational resources. Jesus could climb the hills of his valley, look west, and see the blue Mediterranean and ships going out to the ends of the earth. The great trade route from Damascus to Egypt and from Rome to the eastern borders of the Empire circled his town. Nazareth was a perfect place for the Savior of mankind to study and prepare to reach the world he was called to save.

God reveals his unique purpose and plan for our lives in pragmatic, practical ways–open and closed doors; circumstances and events; opportunities and disappointments. As you wrestle with something about God’s will you need to know today, ask him to guide you practically. Pay attention to your gifts and abilities, your passions and opportunities.

Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

William Barclay got a call one day from a friend who served on the publishing committee of the Church of Scotland. He said, “Willie, do a commentary in a hurry on one of the books of the Bible. This will give us time to look around for someone really good.” Barclay quickly wrote a commentary on Acts. It was an immediate success, and Barclay was asked to write another volume. His Daily Study Bible became the most popular in Christian history. I read from it each week.

God speaks to us pragmatically, through our gifts, circumstances, and opportunities. Ask him to guide you in this way, and he will.

Listen for his intuitive voice

In our study of Matthew thus far, we have encountered five dreams given to Joseph. Here he is told to return to Israel, then “warned in a dream’ to withdraw to Galilee (v. 22). God speaks to us practically, in our circumstances and opportunities; but also intuitively, in our inner spirit and soul.

God spoke to the first biblical Joseph in dreams. He spoke to the prophet Elijah in a “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:13-18). He spoke to Paul through the vision of a man of Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10). Listen for his intuitive voice, for it is as real today as then.

How can you hear his Spirit speak to your spirit? Make sure you are close enough to God to hear what he wants to say. Guidance is first a relationship with the Guide. Radio and television waves fill this room, but we don’t hear their sounds or see their images because we don’t have a receiver present. The church marquee asked a good question: If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved. Sin blocks the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and keeps us from hearing what God is saying.

Stay close to God, and stay surrendered to what he says. He will not reveal his will as an option to consider, but an order to obey. Decide beforehand that you will do what he asks, that you will follow where he leads. Janet and I had no peace about coming to Dallas, until we surrendered our lives to whatever God wanted. I still remember the public library a few blocks north of our church in Atlanta where I went one Monday afternoon to wrestle with God. He won. So did I.

When you are in his will, you have his “peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4:7), a peace which understanding cannot produce, the intuitive calm and inner joy of the Spirit. Stay close and surrendered, and God will guide you through his intuitive voice.

Seek his rational word

Last, seek his rational word. God speaks to us practically in our circumstances, intuitively in our spirits, and rationally in our minds. He does this most fully through Scripture.

Joseph chose Nazareth for Jesus’ hometown. No intuitive dreams this time, or pragmatic circumstances–Joseph made this decision “so that was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ‘He will be called a Nazarene'” (v. 23). “So that,” for the purpose that the word of God might be fulfilled.

There is no specific Old Testament prophecy with these words. But Joseph knew that the Scriptures foretold a suffering Servant (Isaiah 53; Psalm 22:6; Psalm 69:11-12, 19). He knew that Nazareth was a humble place, despised by other Jews.

And he knew the Messianic prediction of Isaiah 11:1, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” The Hebrew for “Branch” and “Nazareth” is the same root. He knew rationally that Nazareth would fulfill the word of God regarding the Son of God. And he was right.

Such obedience is the key to the blessing of God. No good father will bless the disobedience of his child, knowing that its results are dangerous and damaging. God can bless most fully those who are most fully obedient to his word.

So as you seek his will, consult his word. Be sure your life is consistent with Scripture. Look for texts which speak to your situation or decision. As you “love God with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37) through his word, he will guide your life.

Conclusion

This week we focus on the second Covenant of Grace value, “commit daily.” Surrender each day to the will of God for your life. Know that he has a unique purpose for your life as you help people follow Jesus. He will guide you through pragmatic circumstances, an intuitive sense and peace, and rational obedience to his word. Use each to test the other. If you have a sense of something you should do, check pragmatic factors and the word of God. If a door is opening or closing, seek the peace and word of God. If a decision makes sense rationally, test it pragmatically and intuitively.

And know that God’s will is ultimately an issue not of knowledge but obedience. He wants us to know the next step to take, more than we want to know it. Choose now the will to obey, and you will know what to obey. Missionary Finlay Graham lived by this motto: “God’s will: nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.” Do you agree?

It is vital that we begin this new year by committing to God’s will for today, because none of us knows if there will be a tomorrow. Last Sunday, the Rev. Jack Arnold was preaching at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in a suburb of Orlando, Florida. He quoted John Wesley, “Until my work on this earth is done, I am immortal. But when my work for Christ is done, I go to be with Jesus.” He then said, “And when I go to heaven…” In mid-sentence, standing behind the pulpit, he collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack. His work for Christ was done.

If this Sunday were that day for you as you sit in this service, would you be ready?